While schools are closed for the summer, the need for a healthy lunch hasn’t ended for many children.
The Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support is continuing work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the Summer Food Service Program. This year, a record $6.7 million is allocated for the program, up from $460,000 last year, according to Patricia Scott, chief of the Subsistence Continental U.S. Garrison Feeding Division in the Subsistence supply chain.
There are also more states participating in the program than ever before. A total of 26 states are taking part, with Michigan, North Dakota and New York joining the program this year, Scott said. Since 2019, Arizona, Georgia, Montana, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico have joined as well.
The increase in funding and participation in the program can be attributed to the flexibility offered to schools in how funds were spent during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Katherine Staley, chief of the Program Integrity and Monitoring Branch with the USDA Food Distribution Division.
During the school year, states get support from USDA Foods through the National School Lunch Program, which provides several options for where they can purchase food during the school year, said Staley. One of those options is the USDA Department of Defense Fresh Program, where many schools allocated much of their funding during the pandemic, she said.
In a similar fashion, schools can choose to spend their USDA funds for fresh fruits and vegetables through USDA DoD Fresh during the summer, Staley said. The SFSP runs while schools are out for summer break, from May to the start of the school year in September, she said.
DLA Troop Support works with its suppliers to distribute a full line of fruits and vegetables to the USDA customers on-time through DoD Fresh, Scott said.
Providing meals through these programs “did not require additional administrative contact or burden for states or operators,” Staley said. “Many school food authorities choose to serve meals last school year through SFSP, and this increased the amount of funds allocated to SFSP this summer.”
In 2019, the program provided more than 141 million nutritious meals and snacks to children at schools, community centers, churches, camps and more during the summer when school was not in session, according to the USDA.
The DoD Fresh Program had a record of $491 million in spending over the 2020-2021 school year. This was an increase of $140 million from the previous year, and more than $470 million is already allocated for the 2021-2022 school year, Staley said.
“In the last 25 years, there has been significant growth in the number of schools that choose to spend their USDA Foods entitlements in USDA DoD Fresh,” she said. “Last March, due to the pandemic, USDA provided states the flexibility that they could request changes to USDA DoD Fresh allocations or add new sites at any time during the school year.”
Individual servings of items that were pre-packaged were incredibly popular during the pandemic and continue to be popular in the summer, Scott said.
“The convenience of the pre-cuts on the lunch trays prevents extra handling of the fresh fruits and vegetables, which is still needed as we come out of the pandemic,” she said. “The produce industry is always looking for ways to increase grab-and-go selections.”
Despite labor shortages in many industries, DLA Troop Support’s vendors are ready to handle the demand through the summer and into the upcoming school year.
“The good thing about running a year-round program is that the vendors can plan their work schedules and driving routes without interruption,” Scott said. “As we know from the news, there are production and labor issues across the board in many commodities, but all indications are that this situation will improve as time goes on. Overall, our produce vendors are positioned to continue uninterrupted support.”
If there are issues, the vendors will make DLA Troop Support aware of what is going on and the impact those issues may have, said James Hellings, Produce and Market Fresh Supplier Operations division chief.
“They’ve needed to take a more strategic approach in overcoming the issues in the short term, and…the expectation is for the current situation to gradually improve as we make it through summer and into the fall,” he said.
DLA Troop Support’s partnership with the USDA is very important, especially as a whole of government partner, Scott said.
“We enjoy working with the USDA on the summer feeding and school lunch programs and are glad to see that the programs are popular and growing, which is a testament to the quality of our contract partners and customer service,” Scott said.